Surviving Katrina

Surviving Katrina

The plight of pets left behind.

New Orleans, Week of Sept. 19.

Four scrawny dogs rushed against the chain link fence, barking and whining as we approached. I cut open the gate and squeezed myself through a small hole to get to the excited pack. They were filthy, their fur matted with feces and mud, agitated. One had three legs; it hobbled up to me and tried to jump up. I wanted to take it in my arms, console it, but didn’t. The Humane Society had warned us that the dogs were toxic. We arrived wearing gloves and boots; we used hand sanitizers and masks. We were not prepared for hugs.

I COULD HEAR other dogs barking and found them locked in a small house at the back of the enclosure. When I pried open the door with a crowbar, I had to restrain a small Rotweiller and a spaniel as they tried to dash past me through a blast of fetid air. They were frightened and desperate for attention. I wrestled them back into the stench and held my breath while I left food and water. Reluctantly, we closed the door on their eager faces.

As we prepared to move on, they howled in despair. I had already cried enough tears to re-flood the city for having to leave pets like these behind, in enclosures and houses that were already condemned.

Surely they, and others, survived the flood by climbing up on the debris piled close by and now were forced to stand and sleep in the toxic waste left by the receding water. Would their owners ever return?

We had been told not to take these dogs back to the shelter, as they were relatively stable. We would return every few days to feed and water hundreds of dogs like these, hopefully, until the owners arrive or there is room at a nearby shelter to bring them in. These were crisis times and these decisions were matters of priority, nothing more. Because Lamar-Dixon, like the other shelters, was so vastly overcrowded and understaffed, only dying animals could be admitted. And, plenty were dying.

THESE WERE the pets that I, and Jen, a fellow animal lover, hoped to help when we arrived at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., one of the staging areas for rescued pets from New Orleans.

I met Jen Howard, from Arlington, Va., on the Internet, our shared clearinghouse for rescue information and volunteer recruiting, for ride shares and blogs, emergency calls, lost dogs, and a last-ditch effort for supplies. It also fostered a vast network of new friends. A common goal is all it takes to bond.

Jen and I were local and leaving on the same day. Like Internet dating, we evaluated each other over the phone, made plans and met at a neutral spot: the Medical Center Metro Stop in Bethesda. She appeared nice; I never asked her what she first thought of me.

Between us we had six bags bursting with equipment suggested by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS): a crowbar, sledgehammer and an ax, which confounded baggage handlers as they struggled with the weight. We were to become our own rescue team, self-equipped and self sufficient in the waste land of New Orleans. We, and the weighty tools, were on our own.

We flew to Birmingham, the only place to rent a van, and drove seven hours to Gonzales, arriving late on a hot, humid night. There we blew up our new air mattresses, crept into a huge tent supplied by FEMA and squeezed out a spot on the floor with 200 or so exhausted souls. With little sleep the night before (packing the pick ax and other tools took hours), I was exhausted. Waking from a deep sleep I noticed my bones were touching the floor — my mattress had began to lose air — and I pitched from side to side as the air slipped from under me. I was too tired to inflate it again and faced with a 5 a.m. wake up, I decided to ride it out.

IN THE MORNING, we stumbled through the dark to a meeting spot and as dawn brought shape and color to the huge complex, we could hear a thousand dogs begin their cacophony of howls, a mournful beginning to our day.

The group separated into teams. Jen and I were given a map with addresses of homes where dogs and cats were to be rescued or fed and watered. We loaded our van with bags of donated dog and cat food, huge containers of water, crates for rescue, repositioned our crowbar and tools. We were given credentials to enter the city. It was daylight when we left for New Orleans.

To enter the city we had to show our credentials because many cars were being turned away. Long lines of trucks waited. We followed the map into our area of search and rescue. The city was empty, the streets strewn with debris, the houses haunted with the remains of lives left in haste now giving way to mildew and mold.

Then there was the silence. There was so much silence that some twisted corrugated tin, dangling and scraping against itself, caused me to jump as if someone were approaching. But, we were alone, alone in the deserted wreckage of New Orleans, alone but for the pets. We had the city to ourselves.

A strong wind blew soft and steady, and hurricane clouds from approaching Rita swirled briskly overhead. But, it was the smell in the air that jarred the bones. New Orleans was a wasteland engulfed in its own fetid, sweet odor of decay.

A CAT DARTED from under a washed-out porch, clanging against some tin cans, skinny and scared. We stopped the van and unloaded a bag of food, opened several cans of Friskies and left a pan of fresh water. We called and waited. The cat appeared again, circled the food, looked at us, returned and began to eat. We left and headed to an address that stated that there were two dogs in a pen.

The small dogs huddled inside a chain link enclosure, cowering. The ground around them was covered with feces and old pipes, junk, tin and boards. They stared at us, trembling. There was old dog food on the ground and stale water in an old cooking pot. Jen, too moved to be careful, picked up the matted dog and held it close to her face. I warned her, but she was not in the mood to be safe, the emotion was high and the anger deep. Who would leave their dogs in this condition, outside? But, who were we to criticize.

When the hurricane left the city floundering in its wake, it left 50,000 animals affected. We will probably never know the true numbers, but they are staggering, as they are with the residents who were forced to leave these pets behind.

We did not have much time and decided we would return for these dogs later in the day and left to look for a particular cat at another address on our map. There, we found nothing so we broke a window looking for the telltale signs of animals. If they are inside and too weak to respond, an overpowering smell of urine and feces will waft through the break, but if the house is empty, the musty sign of mildew is unmistakable. It was empty and we were relieved, since the owners had moved heavy furniture in front of the doors and windows. We would have had to call for someone to help us break in.

THIS WAS a daunting undertaking. We were just a fraction of the volunteers from around the country working 18-hour days breaking into hundreds of houses looking for the 3,000 to 5,000 pets still stranded. Today, many are now being found dead, others, in the last stages of starvation, and have to be carried out to the van. But, they never give up.

Finding and saving a starving animal makes sleeping on the ground, in a tent or not sleeping at all worth the pain. Several volunteers were triumphant when they rescued two young pit bulls from certain death. Earlier, they were astonished to hear that a workman they encountered on the street had not returned to his house nearby since the hurricane struck. He had left two pit bulls at his home in a crate. He was sure they were dead. I paid $1,100 for those dogs, could you please check on them, he said.

They found the dogs alive, forced together inside a small crate. They were reduced to bones, patchy fur and caked with feces. Destined for the fighting pit, their ears had already been cut off, which gave them a strange rodent look in their emaciated state. Later a vet said that they had survived by eating their feces. They were too weak to respond and had to be lifted from their crate. They were taken to the shelter where they were immediately given fluids and veterinary care.

It is these volunteers, the unsung heroes and heroines of the almost impossible task of trying to save thousands of abandoned pets. The real story, grisly as it is, has not been addressed fully. It has received only a fraction of media coverage; and that coverage has usually been a tender moment involving a cute dog and a loving reunion. But, at best, lost pets vastly outnumber the reunions, although it is not for lack of caring.

Organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Best Friends Animal Rescue, EARS, Pasado’s Safe Haven out of California, Los Angeles SPCA, New Orleans SPCA, Pet Finders, Humane Society of Southern Mississippi and an intrepid group of individuals working out of a Winn Dixie parking lot in the city are just a fraction of a myriad number of rescue organizations and groups of individuals that are working 18-hour days to find, save, and reunite these animals with their owners.

THIS HSUS shelter at Lamar-Dixon, hastily turned from 950-stall horse barns into dog shelter, was overrun with thousands of dogs, cats and every type of pet in the first two weeks after Katrina hit. There was chaos, with dogs arriving by the hundreds, and volunteers embracing every dirty task: cleaning crates and washing each dog, in addition to feeding and walking them, veterinarians arriving from every state to administer shots and save the injured. Many of the volunteers, said they broke into sobs of fatigue and sadness and horror at the magnitude of the scene.

In any case, the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center evolved in these weeks into our symbolic ark, always filled to beyond capacity with every imaginable pet. It served a purpose more important than any for which it had been built. It, and the other shelters spread out from Tylertown to Gulfport to Jackson, Miss., will be remembered always as way stations for thousands of desperate animals, a place where a remarkable amount of love and energy kept them alive and hopefully, helped them reunite with their owners. A giant ark; Noah would be proud

As of this week, Lamar-Dixon has been scheduled to be closed as of Oct. 15. All the dogs will have to be moved.

<pc>Carole Dell is a Potomac resident and long-time contributing writer to the Potomac Almanac.